PERTH Redbacks coach Nik Lackovic has noticed life as a defending champion provides quite the target on his back, but his team is focused on attempting to improve further in 2018 and that’s quite the goal considering they won the championship in 2017.
The Readbacks broke through for their first Men’s SBL championship in 20 years when they claimed the title in 2017 with Lackovic at the helm of a team including veterans Shawn Redhage, Michael Vigor, Joel Wagner and Ben Smith, Grand Final MVP Lee Roberts and the emerging Marshall Nelson, Kyle Bowen and Zac Gattorna.
There were certainly no signs of complacency as defending champions for the Redbacks coming into 2018. They were able to add dynamic duo Mo Barrow and Jackson Hussey who had been significant factors in the Geraldton Buccaneers reaching the semi finals each of the last two years.
With Redhage, Wagner, Smith, Gattorna and then midway through the season, Roberts and Vigor all returning, there was every reason for the Redbacks to come into the season with great expectations.
But Lackovic also knew there would be a greater target on their backs at the same time as defending champions and that has certainly been the case.
Despite that, The Redbacks currently sit in third position having won their past three matches and with three rounds and three matches left, they look likely to stay there being three losses behind the second placed Joondalup Wolves and one ahead of the fifth placed Perry Lakes Hawks.
Lackovic and his Redbacks players are making no secret of what their goal for the rest of 2018 is though.
“I’m really proud of the boys but we have a goal this year and we don’t want to forget the fact that we’re not satisfied with what we did last year,” Lackovic said.
“We understand it’s a highly competitive league and our single focus right now is to play as well as we can, prepare as well as we can and to not only repeat what we did last year, but to go one better again.
“This club went back-to-back in 1989 and 90 with Luc and Andrew doing it with Don Shepherd the coach. They did it back in that time and trust me, I hear it from AV all the time and it’s just about making sure we take care of what’s in front of us every week to give us that opportunity.”
As for life as the defending champions, it has been a new and different experience for Lackovic and his Redbacks team, but he and his playing group have been up for every challenge thrown their way.
“It’s definitely a lot different and everything is different with the way people look at us, and talk about us and the assumptive nature that some people have about understanding who we are and what we do when really they have no idea,” he said.
“We thrive on that and thrive on wanting to keep ourselves engaged and accountable to each other, but it definitely has been different. Last year we had a sense of that when you bring someone the calibre of Shawn into our group and everybody is up to want to play you and measure themselves against you.
“Then this year with what we’ve built over the last six years and did in one game was built on the five years prior to that.
“Now you bring in Mo and Huss, and Mike and Lee always come in late, we get excited about the opportunity of teams wanting to play us and we thrive on wanting to compete and test ourselves against all the best teams, players and coaches in the league.
“That’s what it is about and the respect that we have for the other teams out there who put in the effort and time to play at a high level is what we enjoy doing. That’s why these guys come to training every week and prepare hard for, and do their homework. They do a great job.”
The season has its challenges in terms of the team chemistry and personnel for Lackovic too given how different his group looks from the start of the season to the finish.
There was Cairns Taipans and Boomers veteran Alex Loughton there early to help cover the absence of Roberts and Vigor, but for the most part Lackovic backed some young talent under the leadership of Redhage, Barrow, Smith, Wagner and Hussey.
That was all with the knowledge that Vigor and Roberts would arrive mid-season and then the style of play would change significantly, but Lackovic is proud of the adaptations his group makes along the way.
“The thing about it is with Mike and Lee only coming here for about the last 10 or 12 games means that we start young and small, then we change our style of play where we become extremely experienced and big,” Lackovic said.
“That in turn takes some chemistry and fine-tuning again when the balance of that happens. But I’m blessed to be able to coach a bunch of guys who are committed to the club and each other, and that’s what makes it motivating for me to come to training every week and to make sure I prepare the right way to give these guys everything they deserve.
“This has been a long journey and five or six years ago we had no budget, no imports and started from scratch. We’ve built something and it takes time to build this type of program where you have quality people joining us as players, coaches and administrators wanting to be part of something.
“My motivation is to make sure this place is in a better situation than when I first arrived and I get inspired by seeing the work ethic, focus and commitment that the long-serving people of our club continue to put in.”
The biggest change for the Redbacks this season was a new-look backcourt given the change that the arrival of Hussey brings. He thrives the more time he has the ball in his hands where he can use his creativity to set up his teammates or get to the rim himself.
But in the end, the backcourt trio of Hussey, Wagner and Smith has only continued to improve and it’s delivering the way Lackovic hoped it would coming into 2018.
“I’ve got so much time and respect for Huss as a player and a person. He has slotted in perfectly with the group, he’s an elite scorer and he is so creative and we have to give him freedom to play at times,” he said.
“Ben is just an incredibly poised shooter in this league who can blow open games at any times. And Joel is the ultimate leader. He is the floor general, warrior out there who loves the challenge of taking on defensive assignment.
“Then you throw in a guy like Barrow as well who prides himself on that and Lee Roberts as well. Those three together in the backcourt gives us a great blend and each one of them gives us something different. We are really fortunately to have three guys who are committed to wanting to create something pretty special.”
Lackovic also continues to marvel at the work of Vigor. He has turned himself into a full-time basketballer and continues to be a tremendous performance and leader in the British Basketball League for the Bristol Flyers.
He also was part of a brave Scottish performance at the Commonwealth Games where he was a key player on the Rob Beveridge-coached team that lost to the Boomers in the semi finals.
Vigor was always going to return to the Redbacks to be part of the championship defence and Lackovic couldn’t speak higher of him.
“There’s not another local Australian in our league that is playing professionally all-year round, has taken his team as captain in a high league like the British Basketball League to their best playoff finish ever, then he goes to Commonwealth Games,” he said.
“He led the games in three-point percentage and he just keeps getting better year after year. There’s not another guy who is more committed or sacrificed that much spending time away from his family, club and best mates to decide to work all year round to enhance his game.
“There’s no one who does that kind of stuff. We understand here as a club how important Mike is to us and what his skill set is, but more importantly we value what he does to make himself better. That’s what makes us better as a club and that’s why we are invested in people like Mike who was a junior here and has come all the way through. ”
Having a team so full of talent, experience and self-belief would in theory present plenty of challenge, but Lackovic continues to be pleasantly surprised at the willingness to sacrifice from everyone in the Redbacks squad for the greater good of the whole team.
“I get a real sense of joy and pride in just being part of watching these guys out there on the floor having great chemistry and love for each other and the game,” Lackovic said.
“They challenge each other and the group to get some stuff done at a really high level and we are excited at what the rest of the season looks like and we’ll try to continue to build momentum. This league is extremely tough this year, there’s no off nights or off quarters.
“On any given night, if you allow teams to play at their pace or in their flow or rhythm, they can be effective and there in turn lies the challenge for everyone. We are really happy with how we are going and we want to continue to build momentum now.
“We are solidifying and I can’t tell you what a luxury we have here when we have not only elite players, but elite players like Hussey, Mo, Joel, Ben, Mike, Lee and Shawn.
“Any of our guys are happy to play a role off the bench, we don’t have five starters. We have a team and nobody cares who starts, it’s about who contributes and how, and who finishes games and quarters. We are blessed to have guys like that who accept their roles and just want to do what is best for the team.”